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  The Stonehall Neolithic Settlement

2000 Excavation

In almost a repeat of the 1999 discoveries, archaeologists working on the settlement at Stonehall in Firth in 2000 uncovered another series of enigmatic structures unlike anything so far encountered in the islands.

Dr Colin Richards, along with a group of archaeology students from Glasgow University, returned to the county in August 2000 where the excavations at Stonehall and Crossiecrown, near Quanterness, St Ola, continued for the third and last year.

In August 1999, the Stonehall excavation had revealed a strange late Neolithic structure which had the experts perplexed. A year later and the site managed to do it again, with the discovery of yet another structure of a previously unknown design.

Beneath a thick layer of ash, lay a beautifully paved floor that Dr Richards felt was on a par with the later Neolithic settlement at Barnhouse in Stenness.

Describing the discovery, Dr Richards said: "What we've got is an oval shaped structure with a gorgeously paved floor. We've had two polished stone axes and everything seems to be right for an early Neolithic date. It's just that it's a style of structure we haven't seen before."

Conscious that this was a statement often used in relation to the early Neolithic, Dr Richards explained that at present they only had one other structure of the same period so new discoveries would obviously be unfamiliar.

"All we've got from this period is one building - the Knap of Howar - but what we have here is quite different." he said. "I've really not seen anything like it before. This thing had two entrances, for example. We've got an entrance that was open, then beside it was this second entrance which had been deliberately blocked up which is unusual.

"It's not conforming to anything which we would expect for the period. What this shows is that the early Neolithic is far more complicated than we once thought."

He added: "The big realisation here is that when we started looking into this we were expecting that we'd find a certain type of house. We now know this is not quite the case."

This lack of conformance was not something Dr Richards was unduly worried about. On the contrary, he felt that these hitherto undiscovered elements were hat continue to make the period interesting.

From the dig, the layout and design of the egg-shaped building were clear but one element was particularly perplexing - the structure seemed to have no hearth. Although there was still an area of floor that had to be uncovered, the lack of a central hearth, an extremely important element of Neolithic architecture, may indicate that the structure was something more than a mere dwelling.

Dr Richards explained: "One thing is for sure, if there's not a hearth then it was not built for living in. Even in the Neolithic when it was a bit warmer you would still need a fire in the house."

So if the building was not a house, what was it?

Dr Richards had an idea that, given the close proximity of the Cuween Hill cairn, the structure may have had a ritual, perhaps funerary, purpose. Could it have been, he wondered, involved in the mortuary rituals practised by the builders of the tomb?

Further up the hillside, in the second trench, the archaeologists uncovered the remains of three of the oldest structures found so far in Orkney. Dating from around 3,800BC, on visiting the site, the most obvious of the three buildings was the well-preserved lower course of the most recent.

This house, although older than Skara Brae, sat alongside the remains of two even earlier structures. Overlooking the valley, the trench had originally revealed a second area of paving that Dr Richards explained had seemed to fall short of the visible remains of the second house.

Further investigation revealed that this paved area was part of a second phase of development, the flagstones being placed over the remains of the earliest structure and up to the walls of a second house. Little remains of the second structure, save the hearth and some stone uprights.

The remains of the oldest structure are faint but one thing that is certain is that it too had no hearth. Again, the lack of a hearth, among other factors, has prompted Dr Richards to question the structure's original role.

Was is a dwelling or, as he suggested, related to funerary ritual and the handling of the dead - perhaps an early prototype for a tomb?

Its strange and less than practical positioning on the sloping side of a knoll had further convinced him that the building and area were somehow considered special.

Whatever its purpose, over time the original building was dismantled, the stone from its walls used to construct the second dwelling, and its foundations paved over. The second structure followed suit and in turn was used to create the third and best preserved of the three. This building has a more familiar design similar to those already found in the county.

With the collapsed stone furniture, hearth and walls still visible, this was perhaps the most visually impressive part of this year's excavation.

2000 was the last year of a three year series of excavations at Stonehall. The excavation certainly increased our understanding of Orkney's early human history and Dr Richards' work will almost certainly force a rethink on certain firmly held assumptions about the period.

The idea, for example, that settlement in the early Neolithic consisted of single, isolated houses is contrary to the evidence from Stonehall where the pattern is one of loosely clustered houses, much like the Orcadian tunships of later history.

One of the end results of many quests for knowledge is that we are sometimes left with more questions than answers. In many respects Stonehall typified this.

But what this excavation proved without a shadow of a doubt is that in Orkney, there's no such thing as a routine dig.

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See Also

External Links
Orkney Archaeological Trust - Stonehall Excavation Reports

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